Dennis's Blog

No, Universities are not Going Away

Recently on HN, Reddit, and even the New York Times, I've been reading articles and comments discussing whether or not COVID-19 is the death knell of in-person universities. They make some decent points:

These are all valid points. I learn better with a hybrid approach, where most days I will sit in class but on the days where I have to work or something comes up, the lecture is still uploaded to watch later in the day. The hybrid approach also has the added benefit of allowing students to review the lecture a second time (or more) if they so desire.

There is, however, an issue with one not so small portion of collegiate education online: the labs.

For the Harry Potter fans, consider that taking Physics, Chemistry, Biology, or Geology without any of the labs is analogous to Professor Umbridge's approach to teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts without practicing what you've learned. You'll have all the theory you need, but have you really reached the full extent of your education if you don't know how to apply that knowledge in the lab?

Labs are more than just showing up and tooling around with cool gadgets. They're a practical application of knowledge gained in the classroom, and invaluable hands on experiences that prepare students for work after college (industry or academia). For the students who learn and understand best by doing, like myself, there is no replacement.

Another facet of in-person education: the performing arts. Rehearsals for orchestra, big bands, and large choirs would require massive space following the 6-foot spacing rule, and masks can't be worn if you play woodwind or brass instruments. Choir would be a disaster, as that's nothing but people constantly forcefully exhaling in a room with other people.

The online experience

Friends and colleagues of mine from Eastern Washington University have, overall, given me the impression that online learning in the Spring quarter was an awful experience. This is OK, and I'll explain why: high schools, colleges and universities around the globe were given NO lead time to prepare for teaching their subjects online. Students who were expecting fully in person classroom experiences were instead given Zoom lectures.

So, between poorly prepped Zoom lectures and expectations of the traditional college experience, it's no wonder people had an awful time of it.

This can be fixed, of course, and I expect that many teachers will spend time over the summer retooling their lesson plans and lecture setups to accommodate what is sure to be another term spent in quarantine, given COVID-19's current rate of infection across the US. This still doesn't address how to handle lab work, which is necessary for a lot of jobs that require graduate education (medical field, research, engineering, and more).

How can we fix this?

One solution may be to rapidly develop VR labs, but this lacks physical feedback as well as requiring every student who wants to take a lab to probably spend a cool grand or more in equipment (not everyone already has a VR capable PC). This would be a replacement, but not even close to being as good as the real deal.

Remember those little science kits for children? Super size and super charge them for the college student labs, and you might be able to carry on with in home experiments. This of course isn't feasible for any of the more hazardous, and of course more fun experiments that require ventilation hoods, protective shielding, or controlled chemicals and supplies.

So what can we do in the meantime? The answer is of course to adapt the best as we can, and hope that a viable vaccine is near on the horizon. Wear a mask in public. Keep your distance. Use common sense. We'll get through these times, and maybe, if we act together, thinking about the welfare of ourselves and one another, these times might just be a little shorter.

A side note, the massive increase in Zoom usage has resulted in many hilarious faux pas by people unaware their cameras are still on.

I wrote this post under the assumption that we will be returning to life as we knew it before COVID-19 in the near future.

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I'm a software developer, philanthropist, biker, cyclist, hiker, gamer, drone pilot, photo bug, and all around DIY enthusiast. I like to think I can cook, and enjoy a good game of PUBG/WarZone every now and then.

Yell at me on twitter, github, and at home. Typically present with the handle @dengsauve on most sites.